The summer breeze was gentle and warm on my face as I rolled down my car window, attempting to wake myself up a little after staring through my windscreen for hours. The drive from my hometown, Featherton, had been very long and very boring. Back home there was always someone to talk to, our town was small but close, and this was the first time I'd gone such a long time without hearing the sound of another person's voice. The neighbours always exchanged polite greetings, children played in the streets without a care in the world and you were never more than a few feet away from someone with a friendly smile. Lonesome days in Featherton were a rarity, so moving to the middle of nowhere was going to be one hell of a change. When I got the news of my grandmother's death and that she'd left me her entire house and all of her belongings I practically broke the door off the hinges when I packed all of my things and left.
As I drove along, up a steep hill with a shadowed, narrow road, I glanced up at the archway of tree branches above me and wondered to myself what this new place would be like. This was to be my first time living alone and I wasn't entirely sure how I would handle it. My parents had died in a fire when I was fourteen and after that I lived with my mom's older sister, Joy, who had always treated me like her own child. She had no children of her own, and (out of pity, I think) doted on my every need, which was nice but honestly a little overbearing. I had pretty much everything I needed, just no independence, a large part of my decision to leave Featherton. I was happy living with my Aunt, at least as happy as an orphan could be. The loss of my parents was a hard hit for me, there was no way I could have prepared myself for that kind of pain. I pushed away all of my friends and felt like everyone else in town simply felt sorry for me so I never put much effort into making new friends. Everyone was friendly, we all knew each other and exchanged smiles in the street but I was never particularly close to anyone but my Aunt.
Joy was the only person I ever heard speak of my grandmother. I'd never met her myself, and my mom never even uttered her name. Everything I knew about her was from Joy. I knew that my grandmother's name was Agnes Hyde, and my mom and aunt were sent to live with their grandparents and lost touch with Agnes when they were just eight and nine years old, although I never knew why. I'd never seen a picture of Agnes and I'd never been told why she wasn't in our lives. Up until a week ago when she died and left her entire house to me, I wasn't even sure if she knew I existed. I knew something bad had happened when Agnes left her daughters and that my mom and aunt held a lot of resentment towards her for it, certainly enough for them to never discuss it. My curious mind often thought of my grandmother while I was growing up. What was she like? Why did she send her children away? Where was she? What was she doing? The only person I'd never heard any mention of at all was my grandfather, I didn't even know his name. There were times when it was tempting to ask questions but there was never a pleasant reception whenever I plucked up the courage to ask about my grandmother so I kept my queries to myself. I'd made the assumption that he was just never around, but even Joy wouldn't shed any light on where he had gone. It was obvious that her and my mother held a lot more resentment towards him than towards their own mother, but there were just too many unanswered questions for my liking.
Suddenly, my thoughts were swept away as a black figure appeared in the road ahead and my vehicle screeched to a halt.
'Fucking cats.' I thought, thudding the car horn with my fist to scare it away. The slender beast hurried off, gone almost as quick as it had appeared, and it was only now I realised a light fog had begun to set while I'd been daydreaming along. Just a short ways up the hill I could vaguely make out the silhouette of a large, spiked gate. I pressed my foot to the pedal again, making my way up to my new home. As I approached the gate I was almost overwhelmed by its size, it loomed over me as if it was eyeing me up as I did the same to it. It was at least ten feet tall, with an even taller, overgrown hedge extending from each side, going on for what looked like miles. By this point it was late afternoon but the fog, which had been thickening more and more as I sat observing the gate, had smothered most of the light and could have fooled anyone into thinking it was late. The gate was formed with thick, black iron bars which were spiked at the top and the bottom. Considering the size of it, it was a considerably plain looking thing, but on the side it had a fantastic, silver lock with an elegant rose engraved around the keyhole and much smaller roses around the edge. Through the thick bars I could make out a gravelled path in the middle of a vast forest of western hemlocks, which blocked anything further up the path from my view
Getting out of the car to inspect the lock properly, I realised something I should have realised long before this. Out of habit I'd reached into my jacket pocket for my keys, only I didn't even have the keys. I'd just jumped up and left almost immediately after finding out the house was mine, desperate to prove to myself I could do this on my own, and now here I was, locked out before I could even get in. I didn't even have a clue where my nearest neighbours were, or how far it was to the nearest town. What would Joy say if she saw me now? A little while went by as I stood there, lost in my thoughts and silent panic, when a sudden voice jolted me back to life.
"Can I help you?" Said a monotone yet authoritative voice. I turned on my heels to see a tall man with broad shoulders and a serious face watching me with a raised brow.
"I hope so," I replied, trying my best to match his tone, "I'm Ashleigh, Ash, Hyde. I'm moving in." The sound of my name seemed to surprise him.
"Oh, so the old witch did have a family."
"Old witch?" I asked, watching as he fiddled through the leather pouch he had strapped around his waist. He didn't respond. After a moment of silence, other than the sound of whatever treasures and trinkets were rattling around in this strangers pouch, he finally pulled out a large set of keys and handed them over to me. He pointed out a large, silver key with a rose on the handle which I guessed was for the gate. I turned the key inside the lock and pushed, a horribly loud screech erupted from the hinges as I did, clearly Agnes was either deaf or simply didn't care for oil.
"Will you be coming in?" I asked, trying my best to hide the fact I was very nervous of being alone.
"I'll show you to the house, but I won't be coming in."
"Great… Shall we then?" I gestured my arm towards the murky path ahead and we walked together through the forest of a garden in silence.
The further up the hill we ventured, the harder the fog became. The crunch of the gravelly path beneath our footsteps was the only sound to be heard for the entire duration of the walk. Everything was still, no breeze or birds or neighbours. The air had a chill to it despite it being midsummer, the dreary surroundings only made it seem colder. I kept my head down as the stranger and I walked side by side. He was quite a handsome man, with his thick brown hair and strong jawline, but he seemed reserved and his presence made me feel awkward for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on. I questioned in my head as to why he hadn't even questioned who I was or checked for any kind of proof when I told him my name, clearly he wasn't anyone of too much authority although the way he spoke told me he was familiar with this place. Plus, he had the keys. A groundskeeper maybe? Or a trusted neighbour? It was odd to me that he hadn't given me his name yet. I side-eyed him as we crunched up the path, he walked with confidence, good posture and big strides (very difficult to keep up with) but he still had that same nervous look on his face. Usually my skills were undoubted when it came to reading people, but every time I thought I'd figured something out about this man something else would throw me off.
After what seemed like forever, my reticent new acquaintance finally cleared his throat, I lifted my head and just a short distance ahead I could see the shadow of an enormous house. As we continued moving forward, the details of the house became much clearer. It had many windows, all with wooden black frames, and the walls were built with millions of smooth, shiny stones which were jet black and magnificent to see in such volume. I'd never seen anything like it. We headed further up the path, allowing me to view the front door in full detail now that it was no longer lost in the mist. It was stately and awe inspiring, made of black oak and engraved with graceful vines dotted with detailed roses growing up each plank. The lock was exactly the same as the gate, only smaller and this one was golden. In the middle of the door was a gigantic, iron knocker. It was curved into a semi-circle and carved to look like it had rose thorns wrapped all the way around it. I could tell that it was heavy just by looking at it, but when I looked closer it was clear from the lack of damage to the wood underneath that the knocker had barely been used.
"I'll be off then." Said the man behind me, shuffling his feet gawky. For a minute I'd forgotten he was there.
"Oh, okay. Well can you show me which key is for the door?"
"Sure" He replied. He pointed to a gold key, matching the gate key.
"Should have guessed that." I joked, once again getting no response from the stranger. I turned from him and opened the front door, but by the time I turned back to say goodbye he was already trekking back down the hill without even a wave. I tutted to myself as I watched him vanish into the blanket of fog engulfing the forest around me.
I took my first steps into the house, feeling around the wall until I found a light switch which revealed a grandiose entry hall with an elegant stairway right in the middle. The stairs were framed with ample banisters made from black oak to match the front door. The walls were decorated with a series of elegant mirrors which gave the illusion that the room was even bigger. The floor and stairs were made with dark rosewood, at the bottom of the staircase was a lavish rug made of black fur from an animal I couldn't recognise. On either side behind the staircase and on the walls to the left and right of the entrance were four doors. Each of them were the same, tall and wide, made from the same oak as the banisters with plain, silver locks on them all. I closed the front door behind me as I strolled into the hallway, taking in the splendor of everything around me. I spotted a worn out grandfather clock positioned to the right of the door, the lack of ticking in the echoey space around me told me the clock didn't work, but regardless of the time I found myself yawning and suddenly felt exhausted. I tried each door, surprised to find that none of them were locked, apart from the door behind the left of the stairs. I picked through my bunch of keys, trying each one in the lock but to no avail. Strange. The door behind the right of the stairs opened into the kitchen, the door on the wall next to that was a dining room which appeared to have an archway connecting it to the kitchen. I didn't stop to observe the rooms properly, my energy was limited after the long walk following the lengthy drive to get to the house.
The door on the left side of the hallway opened into a spacey living room, decorated to match the hall with palatial, silver mirrors but also antique, solemn paintings of rich men and women on the walls. There was a large window with a tall, round wooden table in front of it to the left of the door, to the right of the door was also a wooden table, but this one was wide and stretched across the length of the walls. The tops of the tables were empty if not for the thin layer of dust which laid upon them like old tablecloths. Directly across from the door, on the far side of the spacious room sat an old fashioned sofa dressed in black velvet, placed neatly on top of yet another large, fur rug. In front of the sofa there stood a monumental fireplace made entirely out of black tourmaline. Above the fireplace hung a rather imposing portrait of an intimidating woman with hair like curled shadows and fierce, blue eyes which glared off into the distance. Her skin was sleek and pale, she was sickly but beautiful. She stood straight and proud in the portrait, her frame tall and slender, she actually looked very similar to myself. The woman wore a long, black dress which emphasised the moon-like glow of her skin, it had golden roses embroidered along the hem and at her feet sat a black cat with fur like coal and eyes which glowed yellow like calcite.
I walked nonchalantly across the rosewood floorboards, studying the room as my footsteps echoed off every surface. As I crossed the room I spotted a small bucket of firewood which had been left next to the sofa. I picked it up, placed a few chunks into the opening of the fire and used my lighter to start up the flames. Within a couple of minutes the flames were burning bright and the warmth was making me sleepy. By now the hour was definitely late and the air was becoming even cooler. The emptiness of the room emphasised the cold, so I pulled the sofa closer to the blaze of the fire, rested my head on one of the plump, velvet cushions which had been nicely placed upon it and before very long the sound of the crackling wood lulled me into a deep sleep.
The following morning my sleep was disrupted by the sound of intrusively loud banging. I lay still for a moment, figuring out where I was and whether or not I was still asleep. It wasn't until the banging got increasingly louder and much more aggressive that my head finally shot up and I realised that it was the sound of knuckles on heavy wood, someone at the front door. I stood to inspect the noise, stomping out into the hallway, becoming irritated by the obnoxious noise that had dared to wake me and planning to explode at who or whatever it was hammering at my front door. The door creaked as it swung open and to my surprise, there stood the same, mysterious man from last night.
"Hello again." I suspiciously greeted him, abandoning my plans to blow up as soon as I spotted his clean-cut face smiling awkwardly back at me as I fixed my unruly, black hair.
"Hello. How are you?" The mysterious stranger asked, smoothly. He looked me up and down while I tucked in my shirt and tried to pretend like he hadn't just woke me. He didn't look too convinced.
"I'm fine thank you… How can I help you?"
"I just wanted to check in, see if you needed anything. I know I wasn't too talkative last night, I'd just come from the Aggie's funeral."
"Agnes. Sorry, that's just what I called her."
"The two of you were close then, I take it?"
"Kinda, I guess you two weren't though since you didn't attend the service." The stranger replied, a fair amount of sass in his voice.
"I didn't even know that the funeral was today. I didn't even really know her, not that it's really your business, but now you mention it, who exactly are you?" I retorted, not very appreciative of his tone and returning his sass.
"I'm Clyde." He responded, raising an eyebrow at me, then he pursed his lips for a moment, contemplating his next words carefully. "I don't mean to sound rude but… I didn't know Aggie had any family. She left the keys to me with instructions to pass them onto you, but she didn't actually mention who you are, just told me your name."
"I'm her granddaughter. If I'm being perfectly honest I didn't even think she knew I existed, I was kinda hoping you could shed some light on why she left this place to me but… I suppose not." I looked down awkwardly, rather dismayed by the fact I had yet another question on my list that nobody could answer.
"Well," Clyde said after we had stood in silence for a moment, "I may not be family like you but me and Aggie were very close. I promised her I'd look after the house after she was gone, as well as the lucky person to inherit it so… Need anything?"
I chuckled weakly at the upbeat tone to his voice, as if he was attempting to cheer me up after seeing my disappointment. It was sweet of him to try, originally he didn't strike me as the type of person to have even cared.
I invited him in with an indication of my arm, taken slightly aback when he walked himself right over to the kitchen and got to work making two coffees.
"Make yourself at home." I remarked, laughing at his casualness.
"Sorry, force of habit." Said Clyde, putting the coffees on the black oak countertop. The kitchen was antiquated, with black wooden frames encasing frosted glass on each of the cupboard doors. The walls were black, ceramic tiles and the floor was the same rosewood as the rest of the house. Clyde and I stood in silence for a bit, sipping our coffees from our ceramic mugs with tiny roses painted on the inside of the lip. "I got all your things from the car by the way…" He finally spoke again, "you left it unlocked but lucky for you there's not enough people nearby for anything to happen to it, it's all by the front door if you need help unpacking." He looked towards the ground as he finished his sentence, I couldn't help notice his refusal to look me in the eye. It was hard to decide if it was kinda weird or kinda cute. I nodded in acceptance of his offer and followed him as he left to retrieve my belongings from the doorstep.
All my bags and boxes from the car had been nicely placed just by the side of the door. I'd labelled each of them by room so Clyde got right to it and picked up three or four boxes at once, labelled kitchen, to take inside. I was impressed by his strength, noting to myself that he might be quite helpful after all. I grabbed a couple of smaller boxes and took them into the living room, dusting off the tables before unpacking my things and arranging them neatly around the room. As I assorted my bits and bobs, scented candles and colourful vases and such, Clyde entered the room with an upbeat skip in his step to inspect my work.
"I fixed that clock, by the way." He said, coming across quite proud of his achievement. He had the smile of a proud A-student plastered on his face.
"Thank you, first time fixing a clock?" I joked, giggling at the satisfied smile on his face and his happy little trot along the floorboards.
"Huh? Oh… No." He laughed weakly as he ducked his head in embarrassment. "I'd been asking Aggie for a long time if I could fix it for her, but she always refused."
"I don't know, she never gave me a reason. Always just told me it didn't need fixing. Sometimes she'd even complain about the ticking."
"Weird." I said, wiping the last bits of dust off the tabletops.
"Yeah." Replied Clyde, his face back to its usual emotionless expression. Clyde and I grabbed the rest of my things and took them upstairs. The third step from the top erupted with a loud groan as I pressed my foot onto it, the sound echoed through the whole house.
"Old house." Said Clyde with some amusement in his voice, noticing how I'd jumped slightly at the sudden noise. At the top of the stairs we came to a large, square hallway with a narrow corridor extending from it across from the stairs. It was decorated exactly the same as the entrance, even with a matching fur rug at my feet. There were two doors to the left and right of the stairs, but the corridor in front of me was pitch black. Clyde opened the door to the left and carried my bags of clothes inside.
"This is the main room, Aggie's room." He informed me as I followed him. It was a beautiful room, with large windows overlooking the path and forest which lead up to the house. For some reason, despite the heavy fog, the path was very clear from this view. Opposite the windows stood a lavish four-poster bed veiled with a purple canopy. The wood was a deep brown and each corner was a carved rose. The bed was laid with purple velvet covers and pillows, on each side of it were bedside tables made from the same wood as the bed posts. On one table was an antique lamp, on the other was a framed picture of two little girls in pretty white dresses and ribbons in their hair.
"Know them?" Clyde asked, noticing me looking at the photograph in awe.
"That's my mom, my Aunt Joy next to her." I answered, tearing up at the sight of my mom's face. She looked so happy.
"Aggie never talked about them. I assumed they'd died."
"My mom did, my dad too. Aunt Joy took care of me after that. They never talked about my grandmother either." Becoming more and more disappointed in how little Clyde knew about Agnes considering how close he claimed they were. It only made me more curious as to who he was.
"So, what about the rest of the house? What are the other rooms?" I questioned, changing the subject.
"Across the hall is the bathroom. All the other rooms are just spare rooms, apart from the one at the end of the corridor. That one goes up to the attic but I've never been up there."
"Exactly how well do you know this house?" I tried to inquire, hoping to find out how well he knew my grandmother.
"You mean, how well did I know Aggie?" Clyde laughed, he'd seen right through me. I rolled my eyes at him, hiding my embarrassment at being caught out. "Like I said, we were quite close. I did a few odd jobs for her as a boy, felt sorry for her, and just kinda stuck around over the years."
"Felt sorry for her?" I pushed.
"There's a small town about five miles up the road, Hunton. Not a huge population but certainly big enough for distasteful gossip. A rumour started about thirty-something years ago apparently, when Aggie lost her children, that she was a witch. The people of the town claimed that a spell had gone wrong and almost killed her youngest so she sent them away so she could practise in peace."
"Did you believe them?"
"I did." He admitted, "but one day my pals dared me to open the gate and come up the path. I did, because I wanted to look cool, but then I tripped right before the door and scraped my knees on the gravel. Aggie found me and she helped me, from then on I chose to ignore those vicious rumours. Aggie was a troubled woman, but I don't think she was a witch."
"You called her an old witch yesterday." I pointed out, crossing my arms accusingly.
"Yes." Responded Clyde calmly, "me and Aggie often joked about the rumours like that. She didn't care for the townspeople really. To some extent, I think she was kinda thankful for the rumours because it meant they left her alone. She wasn't a people person."
The conversation seemed to dwindle so we continued to unpack the last of my belongings in silence, but every now and then I would catch Clyde watching me out of the corner of his eye. I couldn't tell what it was that he was looking at. Did he like what he was seeing or was he trying to figure me out? Was he suspicious of me? Was he nervous of me? I decided not to ask him, unsure if I wanted the answer just yet. I still didn't know this man, I was marginally cautious about him but something about him told me he was genuine and whether that was his handsome, clean shaven face or just the fact that he was the only person I'd ever met who could tell me more about my grandmother was a mystery to me. When the last of my belongings were finally out of the boxes and sorted nicely around my new bedroom, I sat heavily onto the bed with a hefty sigh and laid back, basking in its luxury for a minute or two before remembering Clyde was standing and watching me from the other side of the room. I sat up quickly and smiled at him, a little embarrassed.
"Comfy?" He asked with a slight smirk on his face.
"Well, at least you'll sleep well tonight then. I should get going though. I left some groceries in the kitchen for you, figured you'd get hungry at some point."
*Oh, thanks." I said, surprised by the kind gesture. "Before you go, you don't happen to have another key for the room downstairs do you?" I then asked him, remembering the locked door I'd discovered yesterday.
"The one behind the stairs?"
"Yeah, it's locked but none of my keys fit."
"Always been locked," Clyde answered, shrugging his shoulders. "Aggie locked it a long, long time ago. She threw away the key."
"Oh, okay." I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't go into that room, it was hard not to question what was in there. My curious mind raced with ideas; Basement? Another bedroom? Some kind of lair for casting spells and what not? I mean, Clyde had called her an old witch after all. I laughed to myself at that last thought, not taking it seriously, but it did bring more questions into my mind about what Clyde had meant when he said that.
I walked Clyde to the door to say goodbye, choosing not to ask him any more questions or keep him any longer. Once he was gone, I looked around the house properly. He had spruced the place up quite nicely while I'd been working on the living room, it felt a little more like a home now that I could see my own belongings patterned in with all the antiques and gothic decor. In the middle of the kitchen table Clyde had left a small bag with some tins of food and bottles of water and juice inside. He'd left me fresh milk and a little note next to the bag which read:
'Welcome to Aggie's house.
I couldn't help but notice he's choice of words, 'Welcome to Aggie's house' rather than 'welcome home'. It came across as rather snide, but I elected to ignore my negative judgement and assume it was some kind of weird humour. After all, the man had bought me groceries and helped me to clean and unpack the house, surely he couldn't be that bad. From what the surroundings of the house told me, I was living in the middle of nowhere. If there was a town anywhere nearby I doubted it was very big. Maybe Clyde just hadn't had much interaction with other people, or maybe I'd just gotten so used to all the friendly faces in Featherton I'd assumed the whole world acted that way. Either way, after spending the day with him I had already decided I quite liked Clyde, even if he was a bit odd, and I found myself feeling quite eager to see him again soon.
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